Te Hura was the chief of Ngai Te Rangihouhiri, once a powerful hapu of Ngati Awa, which occupied several villages in the region of Te Awa-a-te-Atua and Otamarakau, in the Bay of Plenty. Te Hura's main base in Te Awa-a-te-Atua was the fortified village of Matata. Another village was Otitapu, near present day Kawerau, which is remembered today in the opening line of the chant of Tamapahore: 'Kei Otitapu, ko te pumautanga o Te Rangihouhiri' (At Otitapu is the very foundation of Te Rangihouhiri [II]).
Te Hura was descended from Te Rangihouhiri II through his father Te Taiwhakaripi. When he was born is not known. But in March 1866, when he and remnants of his army were tried in the Supreme Court in Auckland, he was said to be 50 years old. He came into prominence during the 1860s when great changes were sweeping across the land. When Governor George Grey, in 1861, launched his scheme by which runanga were to be incorporated into the official system of government, Te Hura was a great supporter of it and an active participant in government programmes.
His imagination, however, was captured by the message of the Pai Marire faith. When this new religion was introduced into the territory of Ngati Awa in 1865 by Patara Raukatauri and Horomona, Taranaki disciples of Te Ua Haumene, Te Hura embraced it with enthusiasm. The disciples began at Te-Awa-a-te-Atua and converted the chiefs of Ngai Te Rangihouhiri, Ngati Hikakino and later Te Tawera, who committed their whole hapu and their immediate families. The word spread to Whakatane and soon the leaders of hapu living there also accepted the new religion; the young chief Wepiha Apanui was an early convert.
However, the large division of Ngati Awa known as Te Pahipoto did not join the Pai Marire faith and its chief, Te Rangitukehu, kept out of the meetings called by Patara and Horomona. He had good reason for not wanting to support Ngai Te Rangihouhiri. Te Hura had married Roka of Te Pahipoto. When she took ill her husband accused Te Whakareke, a tohunga from Te Teko, of makutu. He and Te Hura had quarrelled earlier and so the husband was sure that Te Whakareke had cause to resort to makutu. To prove his innocence Te Whakareke took Roka to a swamp and there had her pull some rushes. The one that squeaked as she pulled was used by the tohunga to send back the makutu to its maker. He pressed the part of her body that was in pain and recited powerful karakia to negate the curse. But it did not work. Roka died the next day.
In anger Te Hura took up his gun and set out to obtain utu for the death of his wife. He found Te Whakareke in his house, fired at him, but missed. Instead he almost shot his own brother, Te Metera Te Tii. Te Metera, who was smaller than Te Hura, restrained him and forced him to act more like a chief. Thus forced to calm down, Te Hura did not like being castigated by his younger brother in front of the people. All this happened during the mourning for his wife, Roka, when he was very disturbed. Still certain in his mind that the tohunga Te Whakareke had been the cause of his wife's death, Te Hura killed him and so put Te Pahipoto against him. It was not until 21 October 1867 that Te Rangitukehu relented and came to Te Hura's aid.
The acceptance of Pai Marire coincided with a time when Ngati Awa feared for their land. Land wars had already been fought at Taranaki, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty by 1865, and the dreaded New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 had been used to confiscate Maori land for Pakeha settlement. There was even a rumour that Queen Victoria wanted to confiscate Maori land and that there was no hope for the tribes of New Zealand.
Te Hura and his people attended a meeting held at Tauaroa pa, near Matata, on 1 July 1865. There the decision was made to establish a boundary, or aukati, to keep out Pakeha and their Te Arawa allies, both of whom were seen as a source of danger to the land. The aukati was tapu, a ritually powerful line that would protect the people within its boundaries from harm.
Three weeks later, on 21 July, Te Hura's kinsman, James Te Mautaranui Fulloon (also called James Francis Fulloon), arrived at Whakatane on the Kate, while travelling from Tauranga to Opotiki to apprehend those responsible for the killing of the missionary C. S. Völkner on 2 March. Fulloon had been warned at Tauranga not to take his ship within the aukati, but had disregarded the warnings. The ship was captured by Ngati Awa, and it was explained to Fulloon that it had broken the aukati and that he should leave at once. He ignored this advice and for his transgression was killed. This tragic event would not have taken place if he had heeded the warnings. On 2 September Grey issued his proclamation of peace in which he threatened to seize a part of Ngati Awa land if they did not hand over those suspected of killing both Völkner and Fulloon. Martial law was proclaimed in the Opotiki and Whakatane districts on 4 September 1865 and military action began.
This became Te Hura's hour of trial. The government sent a force of 1,000 men against Ngati Awa. Te Hura commanded Ngati Awa defenders of the aukati, and at the height of the military operations he would probably have had no more than 250 men. His force was pushed out of each pa around the Matata region. Finally they fled to Te Teko and made their last stand at a pa called Te Kupenga. Here Te Hura was hopelessly outnumbered by a combined force of colonial troops and Te Arawa. Te Arawa were anxious to avenge the defeats they had suffered at the hands of Te Rangihouhiri I who had occupied Tauranga earlier. They also remembered minor border skirmishes with Ngati Awa.
The colonial forces under Major W. G. Mair had a different purpose, to crush the mana of Ngati Awa for all time and to establish Pakeha sovereignty over the land. It was a winner-take-all struggle and Te Hura lost. In consequence his Ngati Awa people chose to ignore him. Losing the battle was humiliating enough, but Te Hura had also to endure the taunts and insults of Te Arawa when he finally surrendered at Te Kupenga. Even worse was to come.
The government used Ngati Awa as an example of complete subjugation to show Maori what would happen if they opposed Pakeha power. Te Hura and his men were dragged through a series of trials which destroyed their mana. These began with a full court martial at Opotiki in front of the officers of the government military forces. The death sentence was passed on Te Hura and most of his men.
After the court martial had been ruled illegal, on the grounds that the accused were civilians and should be tried in the civil courts, the 37 prisoners were taken to Auckland and tried at the Supreme Court in March 1866 on a wide range of charges connected with the capture of the Kate and the death of Fulloon. No evidence was brought forward that any of the accused had been seen to cause death or that the men alleged to have been murdered were in fact dead. However, the attorney general, James Prendergast, commented that there should be no difficulty in proving them guilty of treason. Te Hura was one of ten sentenced to death for being accessory to the 'murder' of Fulloon. For chiefs accustomed to exercising sovereignty over their domains, this condemnation by Pakeha authority would have been very difficult to endure.
His brother Hepeta Te Taiwhakaripi was gaoled with him and also condemned to death. He was admitted to the prison hospital suffering from consumption and died on 26 November 1866. The inquest recorded that there were no marks of violence on his body and that he 'died by the visitation of God, in a natural way and not otherwise of Pulmonary Consumption'. Te Aka-o-Tau, son of Te Hura, was also condemned to death but this was commuted to life imprisonment on 10 May 1866. At 25 years of age he was in the prime of his life. He too had served in his father's army and suffered the humiliation of the trials and incarceration. Te Hura too had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment on 10 May 1866. He suffered the humiliation of Ngati Awa as a whole, because he had commanded the losing army. He became a martyr and a victim in the contest for sovereignty in New Zealand.
After this had become very clear Te Rangitukehu of Te Pahipoto changed his attitude and threw his support behind efforts to free Te Hura and his men from prison. By that time Te Hura had suffered badly at the hands of the Pakeha, and Ngati Awa had been subject to invasion and wholesale confiscation. Altogether 194,120 acres were proclaimed forfeit to the Crown, including 87,000 acres awarded to Te Arawa at Otamarakau. By the time of his release land was also given away to Ngati Tuwharetoa, Ngati Raukawa and other tribes. Even though some was eventually returned, the result was that Ngati Awa lost 60 per cent of their tribal lands, over 116,220 acres. The mana of Ngai Te Rangihouhiri of Ngati Awa had been severely damaged.
Te Hura had two daughters, Taiparoro and Mereana Raukete, as well as his son Te Aka-o-Tau. Photographs of his daughters have survived, and also of Taitewe (or Taitewa), the daughter of his brother Te Metera. Of his second wife, all that is recorded is that she stayed at Tauranga during his incarceration in Mount Eden. It is not known when Te Hura died nor where he was buried.
Te Hura and all those condemned were finally pardoned by act of Parliament on 14 December 1988, 123 years after the war. Only since then has it been possible to look fairly at the odds faced by Te Hura in 1865. He chose to lead Ngati Awa into a war of sovereignty. The stigma of the defeat in that war remained with Ngati Awa for over 100 years, with devastating consequences for Te Hura and his hapu. Ngai Te Rangihouhiri barely managed to survive and is only now beginning to rise again as a social force within Ngati Awa. Te Hura emerges as a tragic hero of his times.